Increasingly desperate pleas from health care workers and public authorities for donations of face masks and other protective gear are an unsettling sign of just how unprepared American hospitals are for the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr. Alison Cooke, assistant chief of hospital medicine for Kaiser Permanente-San Francisco, warned recently that her institution had less than a week's supply of medical masks for doctors and nurses.

"If you have any masks or safety goggles at home, please consider giving them to your nurse and doctor neighbors," she wrote on the neighborhood social networking site Nextdoor.

On Friday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo urged nonessential medical offices and other businesses to donate their protective gear to hospitals. And former federal health official Andy Slavitt tweeted a request to dentists, painters, contractors and plastic surgeons, to give "all you have" in the way of masks, gloves or thermometers to local hospitals.

As supplies of critical protective gear dwindle, nurses and doctors are wiping down and reusing supplies they'd normally toss after one use. On social media, health workers beg for supplies under the hashtag #GetMePPE, using the medical profession's abbreviation for "personal protective equipment."

Officials are releasing personal protective equipment from the Strategic National Stockpile, and manufacturers such as Honeywell and 3M have boosted production of critical medical supplies.

But for now, that's not enough. So charities, corporations and ordinary Americans are stepping up, donating everything from N95 masks to hospital gowns, disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer.

If you want to help, here are some answers to questions you might have.

How people are helping

Question: Why is there such a shortage of face masks and other protective gear?

Answer: Fear of COVID-19 is generating demand that far outstrips supply. Because no one has immunity to the novel coronavirus, doctors and nurses are exercising caution by wearing protective gear when they see almost any patient with respiratory symptoms or a fever – most of whom don't have COVID-19.

At the same time, panic-buying of N95 face masks and other gear has reduced available supplies. Some people have even stolen surgical masks and hand sanitizer from clinics. Now, with more than 35,000 confirmed coronavirus cases in the U.S. as of Monday morning and the number rising sharply, public health officials fear hospitals will soon be overwhelmed with patients, further boosting demand for protective gear.

The supply chain for medical equipment relies heavily on factories overseas – mostly in China and Taiwan – increasingly commandeered by governments for domestic use. And shortages of the fabric and other raw materials used to make masks are beginning to be a problem. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued bleak guidance for hospitals facing shortages, including using homemade masks. The Deaconess Health System in Indiana recently asked the public to sew and donate masks that meet CDC protocols, as did Providence hospitals in Washington state.

Q: What can I do to help?

A: Whether you want to donate supplies you have at home or at your company, check a recently launched website, getusppe.org, which lists numerous hospitals in need of protective gear in at least 41 states and gives specific instructions, including drop-off points, for donating to each one.

If you don't find your local hospital on that website, try contacting the hospital's supply manager to see what they need most. In times like these, however, it may be difficult to reach overworked hospital staff. If your local hospital is a nonprofit or county-run, check to see if it has a foundation or charity arm that may be organizing donations.

In Santa Clara County, Calif., the charitable foundation for the county's vast public safety-net hospital system – composed of three hospitals and 11 clinics – launched a campaign via social media and on its website that has garnered tens of thousands of masks, gloves and gowns, as well as thousands of bottles of hand sanitizer, said Chris Wilder, the Valley Medical Center Foundation's CEO.

"It's been very heartening. The generosity has been very strong," said Wilder, who is now soliciting electro-mechanical equipment such as oxygen concentrators and ventilators.

If you can't reach a hospital official or foundation, ask health care workers you know what they need. Cyrus Farivar, an Oakland, Calif.-based reporter for NBC News, gathered donations from his neighbors to deliver to a Kaiser Permanente nurse.

Also try contacting your local government's emergency operations office, which may be the center for donations in your area, suggested Cathy Chidester, who directs Los Angeles County's emergency medical services agency.

Q: What do hospitals need most?

A: Chidester said many hospitals and first responders are looking for medical-grade masks, gloves and face shields. And, she said, don't forget blood donations, which are down as shelter-in-place orders proliferate. Check the American Red Cross website for donation sites in your area.

What hospitals don't need are: extremely small quantities, unpackaged, used or expired supplies. If all you've got are two loose N95 masks, age unknown, that you found in your basement workshop, don't bother.

Q: What help has arrived so far?

A: The Santa Barbara, Calif.-based humanitarian aid organization Direct Relief has distributed tens of thousands of face masks and other personal protective equipment to more than 1,000 safety-net health providers, aided by $5.5 million in donations from the Clorox Co. Foundation and Verizon.

During wildfires that ravaged Australia in late 2019 and earlier this year, the charity worked with a factory in China to manufacture the masks and amassed 1.5 million of them. Now, it is trying to get more.

"We thought that was a lot," said Tony Morain, a Direct Relief spokesperson. "Little did we know." Direct Relief is now accepting donations of protective gear.

In California, political consultant Kate Catherall set up a Google Doc to gather supplies for bulk donations to hospitals.

Among other donations, IBM contributed 15,000 masks to Santa Clara County's public hospitals, Wilder said. Over the weekend, Apple pledged to donate millions of masks to hospitals, and Pacific Gas & Electric said it would donate 950,000 masks. Nationally, some dentists who are closing their offices have dropped boxes of masks and gloves at local hospitals.

Q: Should I donate cash to crowdsourced or other donor campaigns I'm seeing online?

A: Be cautious. While there are some legitimate campaigns organized by well-meaning people on crowdfunding sites such as GoFundMe, potential scams await as well.


Kaiser Health News is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.

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